Despite predictions, Braves should be interesting and more enjoyable

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Jonny Gomes helped the Red Sox win the 2013 World Series -- and have a lot of fun along the way. (AP photo)

 

  DARK STAR, Fla. – I said it on Twitter this week and will say it again now: It’s early and the entire team isn’t even here yet, but so far I’d have to say the Braves’ offseason effort to improve the clubhouse – let’s not use the “c” word (chemistry) since it offends some – was a success.

Of course, it wouldn’t take much to improve upon last year. Not that there were a bunch of bad guys on the team, because there weren’t. It just lacked something. It lacked a lot, actually. Things like leadership and big personalities, outspoken veterans who knew how to keep guys in line but also keep things loose and help ease the tension during rough spells. (It doesn’t have to be the same guy or guys doing all that, but if you’ve got one or two who can, that’s gold.)

This clubhouse is going to have that, I believe. Like Braves clubhouses did in the past, when the likes of Eric Hinske, Martin Prado, David Ross, Brian McCann and Chipper Jones fit all or part of the description.

Jonny Gomes helped the Red Sox win the 2013 World Series -- and have a lot of fun along the way. (AP photo)

Jonny Gomes helped the Red Sox win the 2013 World Series — and have a lot of fun along the way. (AP photo)

And before that era, the Braves during their division-title run had a clubhouse abundant with veterans and team leaders, and a manager who knew exactly how to let those guys run their own ship for the most part, but who would also handle things himself on rare occasions when he needed to.

Leadership and chemistry matter, folks. Talent is more important, no doubt. A lot more important. But if you’ve got a decent amount of talent across the board, and exceptional talent at a few positions, then good chemistry, good leadership, can make a real difference in helping a team move toward being competitive rather than slide toward irrelevence before September because players tire of losing and dislike coming to the ballpark when things turn negative. When they don’t have the right guys to help snap them out of it, either collectively as a unit or to grab them (figuratively speaking) by the jersey individually and tell them something that needs to be said but that less-than-established veterans, or veterans who just don’t have that sort of personality, aren’t willing to do because they’re just not comfortable doing it. Because it’s not in their nature, even if the team is slipping away and they think something needs to be said to someone. They just don’t have it in them to do that.

From everything I’ve heard over the years, Jonny Gomes has that in him. In spades.

And in the right situations, with the right guys, it sounds like Jason Grilli and catcher A.J. Pierzynski also do. I’ve known Grilli since he broke in with the Marlins after being traded from San Francisco for Livan Hernandez way back. He was a cocky kid then, but many injuries and 10 organizations later, he’s a grizzled, outgoing veteran who gets it and can help young guys get it, too.

Pierzynski is admittedly brash dude who rubs some guys the wrong way, but who has helped plenty of others and won’t back down. That can be a good trait to have in a teammate. Pair him on a team with an equally scrappy and vocal veteran like Gomes, and I think the good part of Pierzynski is going to be more prevalent. At least the Braves hope so and believe it will, especially since A.J. has known Braves president of baseball operations John Hart for so long — since he was an Orlando high schooler working at Hart’s baseball camp — and has so much respect for him. He’s wanted to play for the Braves and live at home during spring training for a long time, now Hart has provided that opportunity.

Here’s what Braves pitching newcomer Shelby Miller said about Pierzysnki, who was a teammate for much of last season in St. Louis, where Pierzynski filled in for Yadier Molina when the Cardinals’ superstar catcher was injured.

“A.J.’s a guy who’s been around for a long time, and you can see it,” Miller said. “He knows a lot of hitters. He knows what he’s doing. When you throw to a guy like A.J. you just have confidence in him. Just that mindset out there that he knows what he’s doing, he knows how to get the job done and how to call a game. At the end of the day, that’s what you want in a catcher. And he can hit as well, hit for average and power. And his leadership in the clubhouse is going to be a huge help in the clubhouse, not only to myself but to a lot of guys.”

Soon enough, we’ll see if Hart, assistant GM John Coppolella and Co. assembled a group that will gel and make everyone feel comfortable and want to come to work every day. That’s going to be particularly important if the Braves struggle as much as many believe they will. I’m of the belief that they’re going to be a little better than the majority of prognosticators are saying, and if a few things go their way and the pitching staff stays relatively healthy, they could flirt with .500. No, really.

But that’s if some key things go their way.

Like if they get better seasons out of at least a couple of hitters from the group of Chris Johnson, Andrelton Simmons and B.J. .. er, Melvin Upton Jr. (that’s going to take some getting used to). And if Grilli is healthy and pitches like he did after going to the Angels last season and somewhere near how he pitched with Pittsburgh for the couple of years before last season, in which case the Braves will have a formidable duo with him setting up Craig Kimbrel.

(I’ll wait and see on Jim Johnson, the former 50-save closer whose performance fell off a cliff last season. If he can regain his form, they have a nasty trio. But even if he doesn’t, the Braves could have a formidable ‘pen with Kimbrel, Grilli and the other newcomers they’ve added, especially if Luis Avilan can get back to what he was before last season.)

What else? Well, if Gomes keeps raking against lefties and maybe hits a few more homers. And if they figure out a workable, productive arrangement at second base until top prospect and future leadoff hitter Jose Peraza arrives. (I don’t think they’ll rush him to the majors to start the season, and while I do think they could have him up by June, but that’s only if second base is a black hole offensively and they think his presence could make a meaningful difference on a competitive team.)

Also, if OF/2B Eric Young Jr. has a good spring and makes the team, he could give the Braves the prototypical leadoff hitter they’ve lacked since Michael Bourn exited At least against right-handed pitchers (we’re assuming Young would platoon with Gomes and play only against righties). But if Upton struggles early, the Braves might also consider Young for center field, or Eury Perez, a potential diamond-in-rough type.

They could do that if Zoilo Almonte platoons in left with Gomes, and Almonte might win that job anyway if he hits like he did this winter in the Dominican Republic. He crushed right-handed pitching there, and impressed a lot of people in the Yankees organization, though he never got much opportunity to play at the big-league level with all that high-priced talent they had in their outfield.

If I’m rambling it’s because there is so much to talk. So many ways that so many different positions could go. Such an interesting spring and season ahead as we see how this experiment comes together, whether the Braves can pull off this mission of rebuilding (without calling it that) for 2017 and beyond while remaining competitive in the interim, or at least respectable in 2015 and competitive in ’16 before they move into their new ballpark in 2017 with what they believe will be a potential championship-caliber team.

Listen, this team obviously has flaws. It’s a work-in-progress, and barring a dramatically disappointing season by the Nationals, the Braves aren’t going to win the division and might even have a hard time staying in front of the Marlins and possibly the Mets. (Philly’s terrible; they’ll finish ahead of the Phils for sure.)

But at the same time, there is so much to like and look forward to seeing in this ATL team, so many reasons to believe they will be more interesting and enjoyable to watch that last year’s team, which had the 29th-ranked offense in the majors and was flat-out hard to watch, both boring and at times sloppy and dispiriting. Bad body language that got worse as the season went on. Silly arguments with umpires after called third strikes as frustrations mounted. (There’s nothing wrong with arguing a called third strike on occasion, because it’s merited on occasion. But c’mon, last year’s Braves had guys who took it to ridiculous extremes, arguing almost every time they got rung up. Yes, the returning Upton did it more than anyone.)

The hitting coach couldn’t get through to a lot of Braves hitters last season, despite sincere efforts, and by the end Greg Walker looked and sounded like he wanted to be anywhere but there watching that team (and I don’t blame him, frankly). Walker and his assistant, Scott Fletcher, are gone. Well, Walker is not actually gone, but he’s in minor league camp in his new role.

 

New Braves hitting coach Kevin Seitzer served four seasons in that position with the Royals, and was credited with helping many of their young players make strides. (AP photo)

New Braves hitting coach Kevin Seitzer served four seasons in that position with the Royals, and was credited with helping many of their young players make strides. (AP photo)

New hitting coach Kevin Seitzer is full of optimism and energy, and the emphasis of his approach – hit the ball up the middle and the other way – could benefit so many of these hitters, as will his advice to shorten up the swing and battle when there are two strikes, not just keep flailing away like the count or situations with runners on don’t matter.

Seitzer thinks there are ways to improve with runners in scoring position, things that hitters can do. Things he’s picked up both as a player from the likes of teammates including George Brett, and from his hitting coaches along the way.

By the way, Seitzer won’t just be talking from what he’s ready or seen, or from what should work in theory. No, this is a guy who did it, who was a damn good hitter in his time. I was in my last year at the University of Kansas when he was a Royals rookie in 1986, and the next year in his first full season he hit .323 with a .399 OBP and .869 OPS, leading the AL in hits (207) while striking out just 85 times in 725 plate appearances at age 25.

Seitzer finished with a .295 career average and .375 OBP in 12 seasons, had more than 30 doubles six times, more than 10 homers four times, and never struck out as many as 80 times again after that 85-K season in his first full season. Now, does that sound like someone who might have some helpful advice for these Braves hitters?

And it’s not like he’s going to teach them all to slap the ball and be singles hitters. Not at all. In is one season as Blue Jays hitting coach in 2014, Toronto ranked fourth in the AL in runs (723) and batting average (.259), second in OPS (.736) and home runs (177), and third in on-base percentage (.323) and slugging percentage (.414). They were seventh or lower in each of those categories in 2013 except homers, where they ranked fourth. He adapts to the talent he’s got to work with.

The Braves don’t have anywhere near the number or level of established, big-time hitters that Toronto had. But the point is, Seitzer has shown he knows how to get the best out of hitters, as he did with some young Royals hitters in four seasons as their hitting coach through 2012. For example, Alex Gordon credits him with overhauling his approach and swing in 2011 after Gordon’s promising career had stalled.

There’s a lot to be excited about, folks. Don’t let the doom-and-gloom talk of some get you down. Enjoy the process. Yes, there are going to be growing pains. There always are during any level of rebuilding, but those pains shouldn’t be as bad or last as long with the kind of rebuild (or whatever you want to call it) that the Braves are doing, compared to a strip-it-to-the-studs type project the Astros have endured in recent years. And like I said, if some things go their way, the Braves might actually surprise a lot of people this year and be competitive.

At the least, I think they will be a lot more enjoyable to watch. In large part because I think they’re going to enjoy playing the games more and enjoy being around each other more for the next eight months or so than they seemed to last year.

• Let’s close with this live version of an R.E.M. classic, since their guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Mike Mills is a noted Braves fan and since he and guitarist Peter Buck also play now in The Baseball Project, which will be in Orlando next month during its spring-training concert tour. Mike, let me know if the lyrics are way off. 🙂

“FALL ON ME” by R.E.M.

R.E.M.

R.E.M.

There’s a problem, feathers, iron
Bargain buildings, weights and pulleys
Feathers hit the ground
Before the weight can leave the air

Buy the sky and sell the sky
And tell the sky, and tell the sky
Fall on me (what is it up in the air for)
Fall on me (if it’s there for long)
Fall on me (it’s over, it’s over me)

There’s the progress
We have found a way to talk around the problem
Building towers
Foresight isn’t anything at all

Buy the sky and sell the sky
And bleed the sky and tell the sky
Fall on me (what is it up in the air for)
Fall on me (if it’s there for long)
Fall on me (it’s over, it’s over me)
Fall on me
(Well I would keep it above but then it wouldn’t be sky any more)
(So if I send it to you you’ve got to promise to keep it home)

Buy the sky and sell the sky
And lift your arms up to the sky
And ask the sky, and ask the sky
Fall on me (what is it up in the air for)
Fall on me (if it’s there for long)
Fall on me (it’s over, it’s over me)


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